Weaving ash into baskets the Native American Way

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 30, 2014

GOLD HILL — Today, class, we have a lesson in making baskets. We will not be making just any old basket, but fine ash wood baskets using traditional methods of preparing the wooden “splints.”
Many Native American tribes used the ash wood for baskets and other things. The Wabanaki Indians have a tradition that humans were first created from black ash trees. The Chitimacha Indians believed that ash would drive away poisonous snakes. Some tribes used ash for sacred Sun Dance poles. The bark and roots were used as herbs for medicine. Not recommended today, but Iroquois hunters would chew raw ash bark as part of their hunting ritual.
Now we are prepared for the ash wood basket-making class being taught by Nick Dillingham. Dillingham says that white, black and pumpkin ash are abundant in his home state of Michigan. In the southern states, honeysuckle, willow, white oak and Virginia Creeper were commonly used for basking-making along with some maple and elm. The Cherokee did use some ash. In North Carolina, we have four species: white ash, green ash, Carolina ash and pumpkin ash.
Ash wood is a favorite because the development of the growth rings in the trees are unique. From the woods near Gold Hill, an ash tree was selected that had no blemishes in the trunk in the first 6 feet to 7 feet from the ground. After removing the bark, the log is “pounded” with the back side of an ax by Dillingham to get the splints for weaving. By “pounding” the growth rings, which are the seasonal layers of growth, 2-inch-wide strips (splints) that run the length of the log will peel off.
“The vibrations from ‘pounding’ the tree helps make the grain come apart,” Dillingham said. The splints are too thick for weaving, so they must be split in half by passing through a wooden device and then pulled apart by hand. “Tonight, we will drop the log in at the creek and will continue pounding on it tomorrow.” This process has been used by Native Americans for thousands of years.
Dillingham explains that the traditional process of making baskets is one of the oldest crafts in human history. The baskets were essential for gathering crops and carrying tools. He also teaches other classes in “traditional skills” that the Native Americans used in their daily lives.
A display of Dillingham’s baskets is assembled on the picnic table. He had “harvesting baskets, burden baskets and pack baskets.” The harvesting baskets are strong enough for gathering crops in the field bearing a hundred pounds or more of weight. The pack basket is used like a modern-day backpack, carried on your back and loaded with your tools or possessions. His baskets sell in the $300-$400 range. The small “strawberry baskets” are more ornamental with fancy weaving.
Re-creating and making traditional pieces is Dillingham’s goal. Many think the baskets today are pieces of art and not for use in work. He stresses that he does not make the baskets to be art objects but wants them used by their owners.
“These baskets will talk to you as they dry. If you have a house full, you can hear their conversation,” he said. “If you spray them with water every month or so, they will last for generations.”
Arriving at the class in the Gold Hill Park, I jumped right in asking questions about making the baskets, since they were working already. I needed to back up and know more about how the class and Nick Dillingham got from Cassopolis, Mich. to Gold Hill.
Interestingly, one of newest modern technologies brought Nick and his “oldest technology” class members together. There is a Facebook site for basket makers. Members of the class came together on Facebook. Hazen Alward from Concord made the first contact with Nick, asking him to come to Gold Hill. Alward “couldn’t think of a better place for a class than Gold Hill Park.”
“Some of these skills and crafts that we don’t use any more, I thought we needed to get someone here to teach it,” added Alward.
The class had only six or seven students, with many from the North Carolina mountains. While weaving, the workers kept up a conversation about their baskets. Becky Baker left Asheville at 4 a.m. to drive to Gold Hill for the class. Becky was relatively new to making baskets. On this day, she was making only her fourth basket. She had cut her finger just as she started the weaving. She said, as she worked on her basket, “It takes you back to nature making this basket in this park setting.”
Coming from Fletcher, Dianne Kerr said, “The weaving with the ash wood splints is not different from other basket-making, but the process of “pounding” the log and taking the process from the raw to a finished basket is unique.” There was no buying splints at the craft shop with this class.
Weaving the bottoms of their baskets was pretty easy for the makers, but they experienced trouble when they needed to start weaving up the sides. Most of the weavers needed help from Dillingham to get started up the sides.
There was talk about having trouble finding Gold Hill. One said it wasn’t on her map. All agreed they really liked the village. There were questions about the history of the village and the origin of the name. Virginia Spitzer appeared to be the most experienced in weaving, as she was already up to adding a row of black walnut bark to her basket. The black walnut added a dark row to the otherwise almost-white ash weaving.
Most of the class held the baskets in their laps as they worked, leaving their clothes wet from soaking the splints in water. With a 90-degree July day, maybe the wet clothes had a cooling effect, but it didn’t help with the flying insects that seemed to annoy the most as they buzzed their faces.
Corbin West has his own pottery studio in Belmont, but he had never tried making a basket before. Hazen Alward asked about the Stone House in Granite Quarry and the Rowan Museum. He had never visited either, but he wanted to go someday.